Sometime in my early teen years I heard the word “ecumenical.” In its context the word seemed to mean something about the relationships between the different Christian Churches. But I was confused. The word was being used at a baseball game, and it seemed to somehow apply to me.
Our town had a spring baseball league, with teams sponsored by the town’s four churches. There were the Baptist Bisons, the Presbyterian Panthers, the Catholic Cougars, and the Methodist Mammoths. The teams were composed of church members and friends. Many men whose wives were active in the church didn’t go to Sunday services but were faithful about ball games. That was their religious life.
Since there were four teams, schedules were simple; two games each evening. Membership rules were informal and flexible. Players came when they could. Town players hoped to get out of work a little early on ball game days. Farmers hoped the cows would wait for their night milking.
Teams without enough players for the first game could borrow from teams that had come early for the second game. Short-handed teams could seek volunteers or draft people from the audience. Each evening’s activities started with announcements: the Methodists needed a first game shortstop and would offer in return a second game center fielder; the Catholics offered a hot dog and lemonade to a volunteer catcher; the Baptists prayed for a third baseman from the audience; the Presbyterians went to the bleachers and returned with a reluctant right fielder.
I was fairly indifferent to religions at that time in my life, but I cared deeply about baseball. I wanted to play in every game. I sat in the front row of the bleachers hoping there would be a call for volunteers, or a draft. I put on my most eager and competent expression, hoping I would be noticed and chosen. I made myself available for any denomination, any position. It seemed to work. I played almost every game. Sometimes a Baptist left fielder, sometimes a Catholic second baseman. It didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to play ball.
After the season’s last game the priest and the three ministers asked for time to make announcements. They gave an award for highest batting average, oldest and youngest player, most home runs. And to me they gave the ecumenical service award. I had played for all four churches, several times for each church. I was open to the calling of every denomination, at least if they were calling me to baseball.
I began to think about my spiritual life. Maybe there should be more to it than random Sunday School attendance with friends, more than baseball. I needed to start somewhere, to make some commitment. The Baptist minister told me that Baptists didn’t baptize infants, preferring to wait for the age when an informed decision could be made. He thought I was old enough.
So my organized spiritual life began there; complete immersion in the Baptist tank. I wasn’t sure I really understood it, but I knew it made me feel better. My Baptist affiliation was not exclusive; I was still ecumenical, open to the wisdom of all denominations, all faiths. I had already learned from American Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics, and Methodists. I thought I might some day go to other lands, and learn of other faiths.